Edited by: Keri Stooksbury
- The Best Free Things To Do in San Diego
- The Best Beaches in San Diego
- The Best Museums in San Diego
- The Best Parks and Green Spaces in San Diego
- The Best Things To Do in San Diego With Kids
- The Best Events in San Diego
- Final Thoughts
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With a delightful climate, over 60 beautiful beaches, and a laid-back atmosphere, San Diego is the perfect location for a chilled vacation along the Californian coastline. If you’re visiting as a family, the city offers an array of kid-friendly attractions, including San Diego Zoo and LEGOLAND California.
Originally part of Mexico, San Diego’s Latino roots are visible all over the city, from its delicious cuisine, museums, historic Old Town, and widely spoken Spanish. Check out some of the best things to do in San Diego, whether you’re visiting on a budget or are looking to time your visit with one of the city’s festivals.
Hot Tip: If you’re flying into San Diego for your visit, take a look at our guide to the San Diego International Airport (SAN) for terminal maps and information on facilities, airlines, and ground transportation.
The Best Free Things To Do in San Diego
1. Explore the History of San Diego’s Old Town
Old Town San Diego was founded by Father Junípero Serra as California’s first European settlement in 1769. Part of Mexico until 1850, the 9-block Old Town preserves some of its original buildings while also having reconstructed some historic sites such as San Diego’s oldest smoke shop and the famous Whaley House.
Visitors can browse several museums housed inside beautiful adobe buildings and purchase charming souvenirs from the Old Town Market. Free walking tours are available daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. from outside the Robinson-Rose House Visitor Center. Alternatively, book a hop-on, hop-off narrated trolley tour to explore over 100 points of interest across Old Town, the Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado, Little Italy, and more.
2. Indulge in Some Retail Therapy at Seaport Village
Seaport Village is located in downtown San Diego and offers shopping, dining, and entertainment facilities along the waterfront. The area has miles of pathways that meander through landscaped greenery, past trees, lakes, and fountains, and a quarter-mile promenade with views of San Diego Bay. Restaurants vary from fast-food to fine dining, and several offer bay views if you’re looking to dine at sunset.
3. Admire Chicano Murals Under Coronado Bridge
Chicano Park is home to the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world, spanning 8-acres beneath the Coronado Bridge. After the area was almost turned into a highway patrol station in 1970, locals rallied together to protest for the park they were originally promised after houses were destroyed to make way for the bridge. When the park was granted to the community, many local artists raised funds, planned, and prepared for years to complete the murals you see today.
4. Spot Distant San Diego Landmarks From the Top of Mount Soledad
Mount Soledad is known for its spectacular views over the city and coastline, where on a clear day you can spot downtown San Diego and even the distant mountains of Mexico. The Mount Soledad cross stands prominently at the top of the 822-foot hill and is encircled by a memorial with over 3,400 plaques with photos and stories honoring servicemen and women. Located in La Jolla, you can drive and park at the top of the hill next to the memorial or in the larger parking lot just a short walk away.
Hot Tip: Check out the best cheap hotels in San Diego if you’re visiting the city on a budget.
5. Enjoy a Night Out in the Gaslamp Quarter
San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter was the “New Town” developed by Alonzo Horton in the 1860s to 1870s, with its favorable location near the bay. The 16-block neighborhood consists of beautiful Victorian buildings standing proudly next to modern skyscrapers. Many of these historic buildings are now museums, such as the Davis-Horton House (formerly the William Heath Davis House) — the oldest structure in the Gaslamp Quarter.
The neighborhood is known for its vibrant nightlife scene, with fine dining, cocktail bars, theater shows, and nightclubs.
The Best Beaches in San Diego
6. Spot Sea Lions in the Coves of La Jolla
Located 12 miles north of downtown, you’ll find the “Jewel of San Diego” — La Jolla. This coastal neighborhood has miles of beautiful beaches and coves, varying from family-friendly to nudist beaches.
La Jolla Cove Beach is a popular spot for tourists to see the resident seals and sea lions basking on the sand and rocks, but if you’re looking for the best family-friendly beach, head to La Jolla Shores Beach, where swimming and water sports are permitted and lifeguards patrol. South Casa Beach is another gem, and although it’s not really suitable for swimming, the tidal pools are fun to play in.
Hot Tip: The calm waters of La Jolla are an excellent place to learn how to surf. Book a surf lesson suitable for beginners or intermediates.
7. Enjoy Family Time at Coronado City Beach
Coronado City Beach is a 1.5-mile wide sandy beach popular with families due to its lifeguard presence and calm waters for swimming. Be sure to pack a picnic as there are no beachfront restaurants, however, there are restrooms and showers available to freshen-up after a swim. You can’t miss the red-roof Hotel del Coronado at the southern end of the beach, made famous for being featured in the romantic comedy “Some Like it Hot.”
You’ll quickly see why Coronado Beach is one of the best West Coast beaches in the United States.
Hot Tip: This beach can get very busy, so get there nice and early to take advantage of the free parking along Ocean Boulevard.
8. Rollerblade Along Mission Beach
Mission Beach lies along a sandbar with the Pacific Ocean to the west and Mission Bay to the east, so you’re never too far from a spot to tips your toes in the water. The beach is around 2 miles long, and a boardwalk runs the full length of the beach and bayside, perfect for walking, cycling, and rollerblading. Many visitors tend to congregate around Mission Beach Park, where a variety of shops, bars, restaurants, and kids’ amusement facilities are located.
9. Watch Paragliders at Black’s Beach
Black’s Beach can be found along a rugged section of coastline that runs between Del Mar and La Jolla. Good footwear is essential as it’s not the most accessible beach, and there are a few different access points requiring a steep scramble. Your efforts are rewarded with quieter crowds, secluded coves, and views of surfers and paragliders taking advantage of the wild coastal conditions. A couple of things to be aware of is that Black’s Beach is clothing-optional, with nudists tending to favor the northern part of the beach, and you must not stand too close to the cliffs as loose rocks can fall.
Hot Tip: When the tide is low, you can walk the 3-mile stretch from Black’s Beach to La Jolla Shores.
1o. Hike and Swim at Torry Pines State Beach
Torrey Pines State Beach runs along part of the Torrey Pines State Reserve — California’s largest coastal state park. Park your vehicle in the South Beach Lot and enjoy the ocean views from some of the hiking trails that run all over the high bluffs. The beach near the South Beach Lot can be quite rocky in parts, and an alternative is near the North Beach Lot, where swimming and sunbathing are popular.
The Best Museums in San Diego
11. Admire Spanish Masters at San Diego Museum of Art
Located in Balboa Park, the San Diego Museum of Art is a must-see attraction when visiting the city. The exterior itself is a masterpiece, with an ornamented doorway consisting of life-sized sculptures of Spanish painters and heraldry. Inside you’ll find Spanish and Italian old masters, Asian paintings and sculptures, and a range of touring exhibits. Read more in our guide to the best museums in San Diego.
» Related: The 75 Best Virtual Museum Tours Around the World [Art, History, Science, and Technology]
12. Enjoy Interactive Exhibits at the Fleet Science Center
The Fleet Science Center is a fun and educational museum for visitors of all ages. Kids will love the hands-on experience of exploring atoms and molecules in the Nano exhibit, and those under 5 can ride a fire truck in Kid City. In 1973, the museum opened the first IMAX dome theater in the world, and to this day, the IMAX continues to dazzle audiences with immersive adventures through space, rainforests, and oceans. And it’s not just the kids that get to have all the fun — the Museum hosts adult-only events such as the Fleet Night of Science where you explore the exhibits with a cocktail in hand.
13. Learn About Dinosaurs at the San Diego Natural History Museum
Delve into the natural origins of southern California and the world at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Meet a skeletal dinosaur that once lived in North America and examine precious fossils that are up to 75 million years old.
Journey through the unique habitats of Southern California and come face-to-face with some of its resident reptiles and arachnids, such as rattlesnakes and Gila monsters. Located in the museum area of Balboa Park, it’s perfect to double-up with a stroll around the park or when visiting a couple of other museums.
14. Go Below Deck on the USS Midway Museum
The USS Midway was the longest-serving naval aircraft carrier of the 20th century and played a part in both the Cold War and Vietnam War. Now a floating museum, the USS Midway is moored at downtown San Diego along the Embarcadero and attracts more than a million visitors each year.
On the flight deck, you’ll find 26 aircraft ranging from fighter jets to helicopters, and more vintage aircraft on the hangar deck. Below deck, you can see the bunks where young sailors once slept and visit the restored engine room.
Skip the queues by prebooking your ticket with a 24-hour cancellation policy.
15. Admire Surf Memorabilia at the California Surf Museum
Trace back the history of one of the state’s most beloved sports at the California Surfing Museum, located in Oceanside. See examples of how surfboards have changed in shape and size over the years, learn the science behind surf forecasting, and hear the inspirational story of Bethany Hamilton, a surfer who lost her arm to a tiger shark.
The Best Parks and Green Spaces in San Diego
16. Spend the Day at Balboa Park
Balboa Park is more than just a green space in the city — it’s a cultural oasis — home to more than 17 museums, theaters, and the famous San Diego Zoo. There are several playgrounds and a miniature railroad to keep the kids entertained, and various restaurants and cafes to grab a bite to eat. The iconic botanical building is a lovely visit with thousands of plants and a lilypond.
17. Splash Around the Fountains at Waterfront Park
Waterfront Park consists of 12-acres of lush gardens and fountains that are perfect for cooling down in the intense San Diego heat. Kids will love playing in the shallow splash areas where fountains shoot water high in the air. Bring a picnic and relax on the grassy areas while admiring the views of the bayfront. The park is great to combine with a visit to the nearby USS Midway Museum or Little Italy for chic boutiques and delicious dining.
18. Hike Around Mission Trails Regional Park
Located just 12 miles from downtown San Diego, Mission Trails Regional Park is an excellent spot to escape the city for hiking and mountain biking. The 8,000-acre area is mostly rugged hills and canyons, with 55+ trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Rent a boat or kayak and head out on Lake Murray or explore the visitors center to learn about the plant and animal life that can be found in the park.
19. Enjoy Watersports at Mission Bay Park
Consisting of as much water as there is land, the 4,000-acre Mission Bay Park is a paradise for watersport enthusiasts. With several rental centers and boat launches across the park, you can choose from kayaking to water skiing and stand-up paddleboarding to kite surfing. For those who prefer to take a more relaxed stance, the miles of lush gardens and grassy areas are perfect for pitching up with a picnic and a good book.
20. Admire Spectacular Views From the Laguna Mountains
The Laguna Mountains are around an hour’s drive from downtown San Diego in the Cleveland National Forest. The terrain could not be more different from that of San Diego’s coastal landscape and palm trees, with alpine peaks reaching 6,000 feet. During the winter, the area can sometimes receive snowfall, which is a bit of a novelty for Southern Californians who flock to the mountains for sledding.
The Laguna Mountains have a variety of hiking and mountain biking trails that loop around the beautiful lakes and meadows. Take in the incredible views of the Anza Borrego Desert from the Desert View Picnic Site before hiking some of the famous Pacific Crest Trail.
Hot Tip: If you need to rent a car for a road trip to the mountains, take a look at our guide on how to book cheap car rentals in San Diego.
The Best Things To Do in San Diego With Kids
21. Build Your Perfect Day at LEGOLAND California
LEGOLAND California is a wonderland for any fans of the little plastic bricks, with over 60 million used within the park to recreate miniature versions of U.S. cities. The park is split into various themed lands around pirates, animals, medieval castles, and Egyptian lost worlds.
Kids will go crazy for the 60 different rides and interactive experiences, including building their own LEGO creations and going behind the scenes of one of the LEGO movies. With the Sea Life Aquarium located just outside of the park, you can save money on your admission by purchasing a combined pass for both attractions.
22. Enjoy Endless Attractions at Belmont Park
Belmont Park is an amusement park and entertainment center located along Mission Beach. The historic Giant Dipper roller coaster has been around for over 95 years, and there are many other classic rides to enjoy, such as bumper cars and a carousel.
Get a hole-in-one at the tiki miniature golf course or battle against your enemies in the Tron-themed laser tag experience. After an exhausting day on thrilling rides and playing the arcades, wind down with a meal at an oceanfront restaurant, and those young-at-heart might be interested in sampling a few of the 69+ beers on tap at Draft South Mission.
23. Learn About Marine Life at SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is one of the city’s star attractions, providing visitors with the opportunity to learn about some of the ocean’s most incredible creatures. Enclosures are home to all sorts of marine life, including penguins, sea lions, dolphins, and killer whales.
View these majestic mammals at the Pacific Northwest-themed Orca Encounter, where a documentary-style presentation details facts about how the whales behave and hunt in the wild. Cool down on some of the water rides, such as Journey to Atlantis or the Shipwreck Rapids, before climbing aboard San Diego’s tallest and fastest roller coaster, Electric Eel.
24. Race Around in a Speedboat
Hop on board your own speedboat and take in the sights of the San Diego skyline as you whizz around the harbor. Your 2-hour speedboat tour will take you past the USS Midway Museum, Coronado Bridge, Maritime Museum, and more, while your guide narrates your journey through the boat’s communication system. Keep an eye out for sea lions along the way.
25. Spot Leopards at the San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo has more than 3,700 animals, including many rare and endangered species, that are showcased within different habitats throughout the zoo. Visit Africa Rocks to spot leopards and baboons, or journey to the Northern Frontier to watch polar bears swim in their arctic plunge pool. Save your tired feet and take the 35-minute guided bus tour that explores various areas of the park or check out the show schedule where you can learn more about some of the zoo’s inhabitants.
Book your zoo tickets in advance with 24-hour cancellation.
The Best Events in San Diego
26. Ride the Carousel at San Diego County Fair
The San Diego County Fair is the largest county fair in the U.S., attracting over 1.5 million visitors annually. For 6 days a week (the fair is closed on Mondays), from June 5 to July 5, kids and adults flock from all over San Diego County to Del Mar Fairgrounds for a day or evening of fun.
The fair is packed full of thrilling fairground rides, traditional and revamped carnival games, food counters, live music, and much more. If you’re not a fan of fairground rides, there’s plenty of entertainment across 8 stages, where you can simply spectate or get involved with various talent competitions.
27. Party Along the Waterfront at KAABOO Festival
KAABOO is a multi-genre music and arts festival that is soon to shift from its beach vibes to an urban festival as it moves downtown to Petco Park. Since launching in 2015, KAABOO has hosted some big-name artists, from Aerosmith to Foo Fighters and Kings of Leon to Tom Petty. The festival attracts thousands of visitors for the 3-day event in September, where it’s all about good music, good food, and a great atmosphere.
28. Watch Spectacular Air Displays at the Miramar Air Show
The Miramar Air Show is the biggest military air show in the U.S. and typically takes place the last weekend of September. The 3-day event sees spectacular air displays from the Blue Angels, the Royal Air Force Red Arrows, the U.S. Leap Frogs, and more, plus ground performances from firetrucks to marching bands. Aviation enthusiasts will also love exploring the many historic warplanes and modern-day aircraft that are available to view on the ground.
29. Celebrate the 4th of July at Big Bay Boom
Big Bay Boom is an incredible 4th of July fireworks display that lights up the bay and the San Diego skyline. The event draws thousands of people to the bay area to watch the display that is set off from 4 barges on the water.
30. Sample Culinary Delights at the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival
The San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival is a week-long event held in November in celebration of all things food and drink. Visitors can watch live cooking demonstrations, indulge in wine and beer tasting sessions, and sample delicious food from various vendors. Celebrity chefs often make an appearance along with James Beard Award-winning authors.
Whether you’re looking for a relaxing coastal break or are seeking out adventure, there is so much to see and do in the city and around San Diego County. 3 days minimum is recommended to explore a couple of museums in Balboa Park, enjoy the waterfront, and travel to one of San Diego’s glorious beaches, but there’s plenty more on offer if you’re able to extend your stay.
Featured Image Credit: Dancestrokes via Shutterstock
Frequently Asked Questions
What should we do in San Diego?
Some of the attractions that you should not miss in San Diego include:
- Balboa Park
- Gaslamp Quarter
- La Jolla Coves
- Mission Beach
- Old Town
- San Diego Museum of Art
- San Diego Zoo
- USS Midway Museum
What is San Diego best known for?
San Diego is known for its excellent weather and beautiful coastal beaches. With so many kid-friendly attractions, such as LEGOLAND California and the San Diego Zoo, the city is the perfect location for a family vacation.
How can I spend 3 days in San Diego?
A long weekend in San Diego is a good amount of time to allow a day at an amusement park, such as SeaWorld San Diego or LEGOLAND California, a day exploring some historic sights and museums, and a day at the beach.
How can I spend a day in San Diego?
How you spend a day in San Diego will depend on what interests you or whether you’re traveling as a family or with friends. This article includes some of the top attractions that can be found in San Diego.
What is the best month to go to San Diego?
When it comes to the weather, there’s never a bad time to visit San Diego; however, if you’re looking for the quieter months and cheaper hotel rates, visit in the spring or fall months.
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